NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Steve Berk's hands cooked for thousands in the U.S. Navy. His mind helped him work on the craft that made the first footprint on the moon. His heart cared for people he met during his police patrol through New York City ghettos. His instincts brought him to Tennessee, his good timing helped him join the Tennessee Oilers/Titans franchise, and his ability to build relationships helped the team set its foundation in this city.
Much of Berk's 15-year career as team director of security has centered on preparation. He is now ready for a retirement that will involve time well spent with his wife Yolande, their children and grandchildren. Berk completed his tenure with the Titans Friday with cheerful goodbyes and vows to keep in touch.
The Titans honored Berk Wednesday during a lunch ceremony at Baptist Sports Park. Senior executive vice president/chief operating officer Mike Reinfeldt presented Berk with a No. 1 Titans jersey with his name on the back and an engraved clock. Guests from Metro Nashville Police Department, the NFL's security office and the FBI attended the ceremony and spoke about how they enjoyed working with Berk over the years, and Berk shared special memories with those in attendance.
Earlier this week Berk recalled his career with the team and other moments that led him here with Titans Online.
Born and raised near Pittsburgh in Jeannette, Pa., Berk served in the U.S. Navy from 1963-66. He applied and was accepted to go to the U.S. Naval Academy, which would have been an 11-year commitment by a 19-year old. He instead went to work for Grumman Aircraft on Long Island, N.Y., where he worked on part of the Lunar Excursion Module that was eventually used in the Apollo 11 mission that first put man on the moon. Berk enjoyed his time at Grumman, but wanted to move closer to New York City because of his interest in the lady he eventually married. He spent two years at a phone company before being recruited to join the New York Police Department by "two police officers with a card table" and a sign-up quota. He took and excelled on the entrance exam and joined the force in 1968.
"When I went to the police department I was assigned to the Fort Apache area of the Bronx, where there was literally no rules," Berk said. "It was the wild West. Paul Newman, as he was making the movie (Fort Apache, the Bronx), would shake his head and say, 'This is incredible. This is like being in a war zone.' "
Berk said he felt compassion for the people who lived in the blighted areas and wanted help improving their neighborhoods. Berk was patrolling a rough area on July 20, 1969, when Apollo 11 succeeded. He remembered a young girl asking if he knew that man could land on the moon. It made for an incredibly unique birthday.
About two years into his patrol, Berk was assigned to a drug enforcement task force that required him to enter dangerous environments and make undercover drug purchases for 12 years.
"That will take its toll on anybody mentally and physically," said Berk, who was then assigned to homicide for a couple of years and then moved to investigations of white-collar crime.
Berk retired from the NYPD in 1988 and moved to Nashville to work as a private investigator. He heard through a connection about the possibility of the Houston Oilers relocating to Tennessee and became interested.
Berk was working with the NFL as a liaison between the league office and the Oilers as they moved from Houston to Tennessee in 1997. He had applied for the team's director of security position, sending in his resume to former Titans general manager Floyd Reese, and waited to learn if he would be offered the highly-sought position.
Berk met Titans owner and founder of the Oilers, K.S. "Bud" Adams, Jr. at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis on Nov. 23, 1997, after Adams presented a check to former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen. Berk escorted Adams off the field, and Adams asked Berk for his card. Berk thought it was a nice gesture by Adams, but wondered if it would impact his job candidacy. He found out the following week as the Oilers prepared for a Thanksgiving Day game at Dallas.
"That was the week before Thanksgiving," Berk recalled. "The Wednesday before Thanksgiving, I get a call from Floyd Reese that said be at the airport at 2 o'clock and I've been with them ever since."
In his duties, Berk was able to meet the Adams family members and get to know them on an extremely personal level.
"Mr. Adams is always, always a gentleman," Berk said. "One of the things that I really admired about him is that he cared for and took care of Nancy, his wife (who passed away in 2008). He was one of the nicest husbands taking care of his wife that I've ever met. He really cared for her and he showed it. He didn't try to hide it. He would take care of her and make sure she was taken care of. (Mrs. Adams was a) sweet, sweet woman — just a nice smiling person with big glasses and just a great, great lady."
Providing security for Titans front office personnel, coaches and players was only part of Berk's duties. He was responsible for security at LP Field during home games and at Baptist Sports Park and he coordinated transportation and accommodations safety logistics for road games. The work involves detailed preparations, careful planning and execution to provide high levels of security for executives, coachs, players, fans and members of the media.
"The favorite part of what I do is having interaction with police and other security people, maintaining an invisible wall that is not offensive to people but is effective," Berk said. "It all comes together when at the end of an away game or home game, when everything is done well, there's been no breaches in the security, nobody got hurt, that it all worked and the fruits of your labor have gone for that cause."
Berk said each road trip is unique, but he grew to like travelling to Jacksonville each season because of the relationships forged there and a generally polite welcome the team receives, despite its AFC South rivalry with the Jaguars.
He has also enjoyed building relationships with coaches and players. He said it is too hard to try to name a favorite in either category.
"It would be almost like asking, 'Which of your children is your favorite?' You can't really put a handle on it," Berk said. "There's been a lot of great coaches coming in and out of here and a lot of great players.
"By and large, (the players are) very respectful professionals trying to do the best they can in the couple of years that they have to work here," he continued. "Getting to know the players and helping direct them into the right area because they are young, they're just out of college and haven't been worldly very long, you have to try to help them and answer their questions when they ask for advice."
Berk said he didn't quite know what to expect when he joined the team, but he's enjoyed the journey. One of the organizations' greatest contributions to the area is the positive impact it has on the community, he said.
"I had no idea that the hours would be what they would be, but I also didn't know the opportunities that would be opened to me, regarding meeting people from all different types of lives and different social statuses," Berk said. "Just the amount of people you meet from fans, to Make-A-Wish children, to Wounded Warriors, to celebrity players, actors, actresses, singing entertainers and just the big-eyed, happy fans that make all this worthwhile. They're the ones that foot the bill for the admission and buy all the products, and they're the ones that are really are the bloodstream to the NFL experience. Without the fans, we wouldn't be anything."
Berk and his wife plan to remain in Nashville but also have plans to visit Italy frequently. Their daughter and her children live near Genoa in northwest Italy on the Ligurian Riviera. He will have much more free time and fond memories of his career in the NFL. Berk said he is unlikely, however, to over-reflect on his past. "If you keep looking back, you miss something ahead of you," Berk said.